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New Tibetan social security cards prompt surveillance fears

Privacy fears as Chinese authorities roll out personal social security cards in Tibet

Social security cards issued in Lhasa, 2018.

Social security cards issued in Lhasa, 2018.

In recent years the Tibetan Autonomous Region’s Human Resources and Social Security Department has introduced a social security card to make access to welfare easier for residents. While the card has been introduced across the People’s Republic of China there are concerns amongst Tibetans because the chip embedded on the card contains the holder’s name, citizenship number, profile photo, social insurance contributions amongst other personal details.

Similar fears have been raised in the past. Between 2012 and 2013, authorities in the TAR rolled out free health services in both rural and urban areas. The scheme involved obtaining DNA samples, facial scans, fingerprints, iris scans, and information about blood types. Tibet Watch has raised concerns that these records could be used by the ruling Chinese Communist Party and local authorities in their efforts to monitor Tibetans. 

The initial launch of social security cards took place in Nyinchi Prefecture in August 2017 with 450,000 issued in Lhasa shortly after. Residents in areas in eastern Tibet not covered by the TAR, like Chengdu and Golmud, were also given cards between mid-June 2017 and April 2018.

 
 

Last year, from 9 September to 4 October, officials in the TAR prefecture Lhoka gathered 263,440 pieces of information on social security cards which were issued, of which 73,722 came from online and 189,718 from mobile apps.

This April, authorities of Ngari Prefecture plan to issue 79,000 social security cards.

While these cards are practical for day to day life, such as access to health facilities, fears still remain that they could be used for the purposes of tracking and easily used to cut off social benefits and access to services as a punishment for behaviour that the Chinese Communist Party objects to.